Startle rehashes crash memories

Posted March 18, 2010, at 6:27 p.m.

When I arrived at the carwash in Rockland, it was so late in the afternoon that the carwash operator was hosing down the place to close up for the day. Even though he must have been eager to go home, he nevertheless seemed to give my mud-splashed car special attention, running his soapy, long-handled brush around the tires and spraying the muddy spots with vigor and care.

I put the car in neutral to allow the carwash’s machinery to pull it through, but even then, the man used another long-handled brush to clean my car some more before sending it along the carwash track. I suppose that’s why I was startled when my car jerked forward as he flipped the switch to send it through the automatic process. In fact, I was not merely startled. I felt a surge of adrenaline flow through my body as if something quite dangerous had occurred.

I realized immediately that this had happened because the sudden movement of the car reminded me of the sensation I’d experienced when my last car had inexplicably accelerated leading to an accident in September. After driving into a house in Owls Head to stop the car whose throttle was stuck wide open, I was very fortunate to walk away from that accident uninjured. But the after-affects linger, as I learned today. Any sudden, surprising acceleration of my car sends me physically into panic mode.

As my car nosed into long bands of soapy, soft cloth in the car wash, I felt the adrenaline rush replaced by something else. It was not just gratitude for being alive after my car ran away with me, but appreciation for those who suffer from much more hard-won post-traumatic stress. If my scary but not tragic car accident causes me this kind of flashback whenever my car moves forward unexpectedly, I could only imagine how much more searing and panic-inspiring it must be to experience post-traumatic stress engendered by war, or rape, or natural disaster.

Realizing that my own moment of fear was nothing compared to others’ had a further effect. As the soapy cloths slapping my car gave way to waxy spray arriving from every direction, I felt just plain grateful to be where I was, sitting in my new car, all in one piece, enjoying the luxury of having my car cleaned by man and then machine.

I found that I remembered so keenly my daughters’ giddy excitement when we had cars washed when they were kids, that I opened my eyes more to the experience myself. When you stop to think about it, it is fascinating to see the patterns of the spray and then the beading-up of the water on the windshield as the car moves through the windy drying process.

I won’t go so far as to say having my car washed was a joy. But I will admit that the insights and pleasure gained in a carwash in Maine were enough to make me almost reluctant, when the car was thrust off the automatic belt, to put the car in gear again and drive away.

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